COLUMBUS, Ohio -- State regulators have set a November target for awarding medical marijuana cultivation licenses, causing concern Ohio's new program will be delayed past its September 2018 deadline.
The Ohio Department of Commerce received 185 applications for 24 cultivator licenses statewide -- 12 for small growers and 12 for large growers -- in June.
Cultivator license applicants were expecting a decision about three months after the June 30 deadline, said Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio. Pennsylvania took three months to review 177 applications for 12 medical marijuana grow/processing licenses earlier this year.
"The shortened window will add tremendous pressure to an already tight timeline for building out world class facilities and having the first crop of medical marijuana available by the September 2018 deadline," Rosenberger said.
Rosenberger said it will be even more difficult for applicants that still must gain local zoning approval. Several cities and villages have said they're awaiting state licensing before moving ahead with applicants.
Justin Hunt, chief operating officer for the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program, said the department never gave an estimated date for licenses to be awarded and could announce winners earlier.
"We have the resources that we need, depending on the number of applications that came in," Hunt said. "There were 185 of them so we're moving as quickly as possible."
Program officials plan to wait to accept applications for processors and dispensaries until after the cultivation license award winners are announced.
Licensees will have nine months to get established in accordance with state rules and regulations. Hunt said some cultivators could be up and running in four or five months.
Ohio law allows people with any of 21 medical conditions to buy and use marijuana if recommended to them by a physician. The law went into effect in September 2016 but gave the state two years to draft rules and regulations for the program, license marijuana businesses and make the drug available for patients to buy from dispensaries.
Other parts of the program are have also worried businesses, patients and advocates it won't start on time.
After the plant is harvested, it will have to be tested at a state testing lab or sent to a processor to be turned into an oil or other product and then tested before it can be sold. Ohio law limits testing to public institutions of higher education for one year, and none have publicly stepped forward to say they will apply for a testing lab license.
Hunt said Thursday that schools are considering it but if no one applies for a license next month, the department is prepared to move forward with private labs that could be licensed in June.
Tom Haren, a Westlake attorney who advised cultivator applicants, said Hunt's time estimate is not realistic for most cultivators. Applicants building multi-million dollar indoor growing facilities on vacant land won't likely get much accomplished during Ohio's winter months, he said, and no one is going to start building without a license in hand.
"These large-scale cultivation entities are sophisticated operations," Haren said. "There are a lot of moving parts and they're very expensive."
Haren said the state's timeline also doesn't consider lawsuits from the losing applicants seeking injunctions to pause the process. Lawsuits have delayed programs in Maryland, Florida and other states.
The commerce department is currently reviewing cultivator applications through a panel of state employees in and outside of the department, a department spokeswoman said. Hunt declined Thursday to give details about the scoring panel.
The department has also contracted with three consulting firms to advise on specific parts of the applications: Meade Wing of Arizona, iCann Consulting of Ohio and BB Grow Solutions of Illinois.